The Eruption of Vesuvius
( Originally Published early 20th century )
Glaucus, through the evil powers of an enemy, had been accused of a dreadful crime. Since he was not a free-born Roman citizen (such could not be put to death by barbarous methods), he was cast into prison to await his fate, which was, to be thrown to the lions in the amphitheater. Ione, his betrothed, and Nydia, the poor slave girl, were in despair of saving his life.
" Glaucus the Athenian, thy time has come," said a loud and clear voice ; " the lion awaits thee."
The lion had been kept without food for twenty-four hours, and during the whole morning had shown a singular uneasiness. Its bearing seemed more that of fear than of rage. It hung its head, snuffed the air through the bars, then lay down again.
Glaucus stood in the arena, waiting. The door of the lion's cage was opened, but to the astonishment of all the beast paid no attention to the prisoner. It circled round and round the place, seeking some way to escape. At length it crept with a moan back into its cage.
Suddenly a loud cry was heard at one of the entrances. The eyes of the crowd seemed drawn upward and beheld with dismay a vast vapor shooting from the summit of Vesuvius in the form of a gigantic pine tree, the trunk blackness, the branches fire !
There was a dead, heart-sunken silence, through which there broke the roar of the lion. Then there rose shrieks of women ; the men stared at each other but were dumb. At that moment they felt the earth shake beneath their feet ; the walls of the theater trembled. An instant more and the mountain cloud seemed to roll toward them, dark and rapid, like a torrent, casting from its bosom a shower of ashes mixed with fragments of burning stone.
The crowd turned to fly, each dashing, pressing, crushing against the other. Glaucus had been led by the officers of the arena into a small cell, when an impatient cry was heard without. The throng gave way, and the blind girl flung herself at his feet, sobbing, " I have found thee ; I am not too late." The officers fled with the rest, and Glaucus and Nydia swiftly paced the perilous streets. They hastened to the home of Ione. The darkness increased so rapidly that it was with difficulty they could guide their steps. The flower-wreathed columns seemed to reel and tremble. Breathless, Glaucus rushed forward, shouting aloud the name of Ione, and at length heard her voice in wondering reply. To seize lone in his arms—to hurry from the mansion — seemed to him the work of an instant ! The three hastened onward. Alas! whither? They saw not a step before them; the blackness became utter. The mighty mountain now cast up columns of boiling water. At frequent intervals the streams, blended and kneaded with the half-burning ashes, fell like seething mud upon the streets.
The cloud which had scattered so deep a murkiness over the day had now settled into a solid and impenetrable mass, but in proportion as the blackness gathered did the lightnings around Vesuvius increase in their vivid and scorching glare. Nor was their horrible beauty confined to the usual hues of fire ; no rainbow ever rivaled their varying and prodigal dyes, now brightly blue as the most azure depth of a southern sky, now of a livid and snakelike green, darting restlessly to and fro as the folds of an enormous serpent, now of a lurid and intolerable crimson, gushing forth through the columns of smoke, far and wide, and lighting up the whole city from arch to arch, then suddenly dying into a sickly paleness, like the ghost of their own life.
In the pauses of the showers you heard the rumbling of the earth beneath, the groaning waves of the tortured sea, or the hissing murmur of the escaping gases through the chasms of the distant mountain.
The ashes in many places were already knee-deep, and the boiling showers which came from the steaming breath of the volcano forced their way into the houses, bearing with them a strong and suffocating vapor. In some places immense fragments of rock, hurled upon the house roofs, bore down along the streets masses of confused ruin which yet more and more obstructed the way.
Here and there in more public places, such as the porticoes of temples and the entrances to the forum, citizens had endeavored to place rows of torches, but these rarely continued long — the showers and the winds extinguished them.
Frequently, by the momentary light of these torches, parties of fugitives encountered each other, some hurrying toward the sea, others flying from the sea back to the land. Wild, haggard, ghastly with supernatural fears, these groups gazed at each other, but without the leisure to speak, to consult, to advise.
Through this awful scene did Glaucus make his way, accompanied by Ione and the blind girl. Suddenly a rush of hundreds, in their path to the sea, swept by them. Nydia was torn from the side of Glaucus, who with Ione was borne rapidly onward, and when the crowd (whose forms they saw not, so thick was the gloom) were gone, Nydia was still separated from their side. Glaucus shouted her name. No answer came. They retraced their steps—in vain; they could not discover her; it was evident that she had been swept along by the human current. Their friend, their preserver, was lost ! for hitherto Nydia had been their guide. Her blindness rendered the scene familiar to her alone. Accustomed through a perpetual night to tread the windings of the city, she had led them unerringly toward the seashore, by which they had resolved to hazard an escape. Now, which way could they wend? All was rayless to them - a maze without a clue.
Advancing, as men grope for escape in a dungeon, they continued their uncertain way. At the moments when the volcanic lightnings lingered over the streets, they were enabled by that awful light to steer and guide their progress ; yet little did the view it presented to them cheer or encourage their path. Cinder and rock lay matted in heaps, and ever as the winds swept howling along the street, they bore sharp streams of burning dust and sickening and poisonous vapors.
Meanwhile Nydia, when separated by the throng from Glaucus and Ione, had in vain endeavored to regain them. In vain she raised that plaintive cry so peculiar to the blind. Again and again she returned to the spot where they had been divided, to be dashed aside in the impatience of distraction. Who in that hour spared one thought to his neighbor ? At length it occurred to Nydia that as it had been resolved to seek the seashore for escape, her most probable chance of rejoining her companions would be to persevere in that direction. Guiding her steps, then, by the staff which she always carried, she continued, with incredible dexterity, to avoid the masses of ruin that encumbered the path, and to take the nearest direction to the seaside.
The sea had retired far from the shore, and they who had fled to it had been so terrified by this and by the sound of the huge stones cast from the mountain into the deep that they had returned again to the land.
And now new fugitives arrived ; from them Nydia learned that Glaucus was still in the forum. Silently she glided through the throng. She gained the forum — the arch ; she stooped down ; she felt around ; she called on the name of Glaucus.
A weak voice answered, " Who calls on me ? " "Arise; follow me! Take my hand ! Glaucus, thou shalt be saved ! "
In wonder and sudden hope Glaucus arose; " Nydia ? Ah ! thou, then, art safe ! " The tender joy of his voice pierced the heart of the blind girl.
Half carrying Ione, Glaucus followed his guide. After incredible perseverance they gained the sea and joined a group who, bolder than the rest, re-solved to hazard any peril rather than continue in such a scene. In darkness they put forth, but as they cleared the land the channels of molten fire on the mountain threw a redness over the waves.
Meanwhile the showers of dust and ashes fell into the wave and scattered their snows over the deck. Far and wide, borne by the winds, those showers descended upon the remotest climes, startling even the swarthy African, and whirled along the antique soil of Syria and of Egypt.
Abridged from " The Last Days of Pompeii "
Ione (i o'ne). — lurid (lu'rid); appearing like fire seen through smoke.